THE HUMAN DIMENSION
Richard Dean Anderson wonders what lurks beyond the Stargate for him.
"There have been some very flattering things written and said about the show," observes Richard Dean Anderson during a break in the shooting of a new episode of Stargate SG-1 in a "mud pit out in the middle of God's country" somewhere in Western Canada. The show, now in its fifth year of production, has, for many fans, surpassed the popularity of the film that inspired it and confirmed the ongoing appeal of its ensemble cast. And Anderson, who is still fondly remembered as the unbelievably resourceful MacGyver as well as the Western writer behind the Legend, believes that what sets the series apart is its humanity.
Beyond the inventiveness of Stargate SG-1 as a SF adventure series, and beyond the strength of its concept, says Anderson, "I've felt from fairly early on that the cast, the characters they portray and their interactions exude a humanity that comes off on screen. I read somewhere that that was the most unique thing about the show, and I agree -- our characters are human and they act with humanity toward each other, and yet we're in a SF show. We just happen to be traveling to bizarre alien lands."
The humanity that characterizes the actors and their alter-egos in front of the camera extends to their ongoing rapport on the set and, in turn, nourishes their screen selves. "We all get along famously," Anderson explains. "There's a really nice rapport among the regular cast. There's an ease of production, of portrayal, and that comes across -- because the writers write to the personalities of our cast."
As Colonel Jack O'Neill, Anderson manifests the same sort of charisma that he brought to MacGyver. "My MacGyver producers approached me [for the role] when they realized there was enough in my own personality that interested them to integrate it into that character. So it became a bit of an extension, to some degree. Obviously, I'm not as smart as he was, but there were some quirks of my own personality that they felt were easy to integrate into a character who was already innately interesting."
To secure his current show's continuing appeal, "We had to establish a game plan of storylines to make sure there was a thread, a through-line for it all," the actor explains. "And O'Neill has basically stayed true to form. If anything, he has become a little more glib and a little more sarcastic about life in general. He may be slowly atrophying into some semblance of cynicism. Actually, he's filling out, maturing -- if that's possible at my age of 51."
Maturation is precisely what Anderson is experiencing in his own life right now, as the father of a young girl named Wylie. "She's the crowning jewel of my life's work. It may sound corny to talk like this, but I love her so much. My general demeanor has softened in real life. I've always loved kids and I've always worked with them in various capacities, but to have one of my own and to watch the natural evolution of my child has put me in a different place, with a new way of perceiving and dealing with things. It's a big change, but one that I readily welcome."
But this personal trajectory hasn't affected Anderson's portrayal of Colonel O'Neill. "With him, I haven't been so taxed that I've had to tap into any real-life situations," he explains. "The crossover between that part of my life into Jack really isn't too strong yet. We don't have any storylines that need me to tap into that.
"As we speak, we're poised to make some decisions about the future of the show in general, about what direction we should take. Part of that is because we don't know whether we will exist beyond this fifth year. There MAY be a sixth year of Stargate, which would cause us to do a little tap dance with the storyline, so we're not making any big commitments right now. The bad guys remain the bad guys, and we're there to save the universe. That's the basic premise, and we're remaining true to that right now."
In an interview in SCI-FI TV #7, Anderson expressed hopes that the series would push its parameters both conceptually and technically, and now, two years later, he feels that Stargate SG-1 is doing just that -- and not only in the FX domain.
"We have a team -- we use a couple of different FX houses, but James Tichenor, our visual effects producer, is nothing short of a genius. We're dealing with a television venue, which limits our budget, but what we get out of what we put in is cutting-edge on so many levels, not the least of which is budgetary. Certainly, creatively, we're doing stuff that's amazing. I can't keep up with it, and I don't even pretend to try and understand how it's done. I sit in awe with most people as we create effects. And conceptually, we have writers like Brad Wright and Robert Cooper, who are banging out stories and ideas that are strong and unique."
But can a performer sustain his enthusiasm for a character -- and a series -- for such a long time? Can he keep things fresh and exciting? "I've never shied away from giving an honest answer to that question. I basically have a short attention span. At this time, the machinery of making a TV series is moving smoothly, and creatively the stories remain strong and unique. I'm happy with it, and I have a strong will about such things.
"The hardest part about being in the fifth season is the separation from my family. My daughter is of school age, so we keep her in Los Angeles where she's acclimating socially to her school, so I'm commuting every weekend and that's tough. As far as the show's quality, if that starts to waver, then I would say that I was unhappy and I would leave. But that isn't the case.
"I'm at a point right now where I'm trying to have as much fun as possible with this character, and there are plenty of opportunities. Brad understands what I'm trying to do with the character and he knows the voice of O'Neill, so he writes most specifically for that, which I can then embellish. Jack remains interesting to me. There's a sense of humor that prevails, and sometimes it's a very quiet sense of humor. Part of the payoff for me, too, is that people recognize the minor moments, the small things that O'Neill will do that are human and possibly anachronistic for a military man -- things that show the irreverence he possesses and the twinkle in his eyes that co-exist with his being an Air Force colonel."
At one point, Anderson expressed interest in directing an episode, as part of broadening his own horizons, but today he no longer feels that need. "I'm one of the producers, and we get to hire guys to go out and shoot all the stuff and do all the homework and take all the blame. So I can just sit in the editing room, deal with the script, give notes and set my input there. I don't need the burden of directing and I certainly don't need the ego charge."
As for the possibility of MGM making a Stargate theatrical sequel using the SG-1 show's concept and cast, Anderson believes that "a lot of that has come out of wishful thinking. It would be nice, I suppose, to be given a green light to develop something on a grander scale and a bigger budget to make it big-screen-worthy, but I honestly don't have any details."
Looking back, the actor is also unable to point out some key episodes of the series, explaining that they tend to blur in his memory. "I have a hard time keeping the seasons separate, let alone remembering specific episodes," he laughs.
He is, however, excited about the recent five-DVD-set release of the first season's entire 21 episodes. The set includes interviews with cast members and behind-the-scenes featurettes filmed by them. "They gave us little cameras to film that stuff. I'll be interested to watch this evidence against us," Anderson says. "Brad and I did some of the wraparound for it."
One thing the 1999 Saturn Award-winner for Best Actor in a TV SF series won't have to go back and watch are past episodes to appreciate his co-stars. "Michael Shanks [who plays Professor Daniel Jackson] and I have the most fun on camera together. First of all, all the actors have had to endure my spontaneous-combustion behavior on the set. As an actor, I work from without, and I bring things down: I may start bouncing off a chandelier to find peace, sanity and credibility. But Shanks and I have a nice rhythmic rapport as actors. Michael is a wonderful actor and he understands rhythms. We have a sort of quiet humor going on -- it's getting more blatant and overt -- and we have fun playing off that. Our relationship is quirky.
"Amanda Tapping is a solid comedienne. She has an awareness of the same elements I'm talking about. She knows what she's doing. As an actress, she's strong and she has created one of the stronger women roles I've ever witnessed on television [Dr. Samantha Carter]. I think she's also very proud about it -- and I very much respect that.
"Christopher Judge is just one of the most impossible human beings to ever grace the face of the Earth," Anderson jokes. "Actually, Chris has turned into one of the biggest teddy bears that I've ever met. He should be at FAO Schwarz. He probably has the most interesting character on the show [Teal'c]. It has been limited, but that has created a mystery and a mystique around him. Chris has been very patient about the quantity -- or lack of quantity -- of work that he has had, but when we give him something to chew on, he really knows what to do with it. He has blossomed into one of the better actors I've worked with, and he has a strength about him, but he has to start working out!
"And Don Davis [as General Hammond], I worked with him during my MacGyver days: He was Dana Elcar's stand-in and a stuntman. He's our 'Jolly Roger,' a good old boy - Ozark Mountain daredevil. He's a sweetheart, but he has to start eating and putting on some weight."
For all the pleasures he brings to and derives from Stargate SG-1, Anderson is ready for a change. "Acting is taking less and less of an important role in my life," he points out. "I'm currently in the midst of a transition or transformation, certainly a revelation: I am part of a documentary film group chronicling the great rivers of the world. They're all class-5 whitewater river trips, and we're dealing with the cultural aspects of the valleys and mountains that surround these rivers, the political issues that affect them and any related elements like hydroelectric dams or logging."
His new career and passion as a documentarian has already taken him to Chile and Ecuador, with future trips scheduled to Alaska, Quebec, Peru, Africa, China and Tibet. "I've become involved in this project over the last year. We're essentially getting a library of footage on these great rivers and finding a way of piecing it together so it will have the greatest educational impact for the environmental causes we're trying to highlight."
Anderson's new focus continues his passion for nature and the outdoors. "I've donated money, and I do the things that every human should for the right to live on this Earth," he offers. "And now I'm in a position to be more active in a creative way. The decision that my partners and I have made is that rather than do slam pieces and politically charged reports on these rivers, we should show the glory, the beauty and the elements of cultural heritage that are part of them, and talk to the people who garner their bounty from the rivers and who have lived for generations from them.
"I've had adventures in real life and I've had them in commercial TV," Richard Dean Anderson concludes. "Now is the time to do something new, something that I feel a strong need to do."